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Including Non-Occupiers and Strengthening a Movement


By davidswanson - Posted on 08 November 2011

You meet simply wonderful and incredibly smart people at nonviolent occupations.  At least I do.  I just met someone who knows exactly what they are talking about but does not want to be identified in any way other than by the name "Prof."  Prof has been thinking about how to strengthen the Occupy movement, how to build a structure for it -- or rather how to allow it to build one itself, from the ground up, with ideas moving up levels of representation, not down as we're all so used to, and with people who cannot or will not or anyway do not sleep in public squares able to take part in a lasting and effective way.  I cannot recommend too strongly that every Occupation look into this and click the links, hold trainings, and get this rolling. --David Swanson

Study Circles, Citizen's Assemblies, and  Social Media: A Civic Infrastructure for "Occupy Wall Street"
By "Prof"

In a speech at a National Civic League annual meeting, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley described American society with a very interesting metaphor. According to Bradley, American society is like a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg. Bradley got the audience’s attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long, and the civil society leg is very short, making the stool—and the society—very unstable.[1]

I.               What’s the problem? Where did it come from?

When Alexis DeTocqueville toured the United States after the American Revolution, he described an American society with a rich community life and a vibrant civil society. In fact, the civil society leg of the stool was much longer than the other two. But not for long.

The Civil War brought Northern manufacturing to a peak, and the country entered its industrial revolution soon after. By the late19th century, railroad and oil barons and bankers and their huge trusts exercised enormous influence, dwarfing civil society and the national government to Lilliputian proportions.

Such power needed to be checked, and by the early 20th century, “trust-busting” President Teddy Roosevelt began building the government regulatory system needed to do so. The 16th Amendment permitted the federal income tax, and the government leg began to grow to match the business leg.

Though slowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and President Franklin established the regulatory state by the end of World War II. The business collapse of the 1930s made their case.

With the government’s help as well as its supervision, the business sector re-grew rapidly during and after World War II, and by the 1980s, was prepared to push back against government. At the time, the two were about evenly matched.

The "Reagan Revolution" reduced income tax revenues and reduced government regulation, weakening government except in the areas of private property protection at home and abroad. The pattern continues, with disastrous results for the environment, our standard of living, and our country’s financial stability.

During this time, the civil society leg got shorter and shorter, and not only by comparison. The suburbanization waves after World War II broke up old neighborhoods in the cities. Stay-at-home Moms kept the patchwork together, until they began to return to the work force. Private sector unions grew weaker and weaker, buffeted by McCarthyism in the 1950s and the loss of the country’s industrial job base to the developing world in the 1970s.

II.             What Solutions Are Not Working?

Government is increasingly less responsive to “ordinary” people and their concerns. Globe-trotting businesses and banks increasingly see consumers as commodities rather than members of a shared community.

On the community side, public sector unions are all that is left of the union movement, and they are under sustained attack. The episodic social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—civil rights, women's liberation—have come to focus more on inclusion in corporate society than on challenging it. Without a grass-roots organizational structure, the U.S. progressive movements remains easily co-opted or destabilized.

III.           What Can Be Tried That’s New?

Our country needs a community-based “civic infrastructure” that is sufficiently strong and well-enough organized to provide a needed balance to business and government. Several models are available to accomplish this objective.

The first involves small groups (5-12 people) regularly meeting together in a format the Swedes call "study circles,” to reach consensus on the problems they face and what to do about them. More on these can be found at http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-57887 (history and Swedish practice) and at http://www.everyday-democracy.org/en/index.aspx (U.S. practice, with free training manuals and advice available).

The second is a model permitting these study circles to knit themselves together into an organization large enough to tackle the problems they unearth yet supple enough to operate without bureaucracy, hierarchy, or top-down control. This model -- “citizen’s assemblies”—was conceived by Thomas Jefferson and unearthed by one of his African-American descendants, lawyer Don Anderson (Anderson wrote much of the War on Poverty legislation). URLs on this include http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/publications/anderson_96.html and http://michigantoday.umich.edu/03/Fal03/assembly.html

Jefferson saw Assemblies beginning with councils of seven families. Each council would choose a representative, who then sat on a council with six other representatives. The process would cascade from there, soon covering a population the size of a small Congressional District.

Jefferson thought of this as a way to elect members of Congress, but I propose that modern Citizen’s assemblies, aggregating study circles rather than families, not participate so directly in electoral politics. Rather, they would act as a watchdog on business as well as government, without formally participating in either, staying true to its “community leg” origins.

Regarding government, the Assemblies could make the voices of the broad base of the population heard without depending on the corporate media. As the voice of many voters, it could be a real force. Regarding business, Citizens Assemblies would represent many consumers and bank depositors—a real force here as well. (The Assemblies could also perform some functions "parallel” to government, like community mediation, and "parallel” to business, like food and energy coops.)

The Assemblies and their study circle components would no doubt use social media to speed communication and to aggregate their insights and goals in a way that would enable them to speak directly and authoritatively to power, whether economic or political. Operating in concentric circles, those at the center would all come directly from study circles at the periphery, with many relationships binding each Assembly together, so even if social media suddenly became unavailable, communication would not cease.

There’s a diagram of the structure below. Level 1 (L1) might aggregate 10 study circles of ten people each. Level 4 would thus bring together a hundred thousand people. Level 5 would aggregate a sufficient number of Level 4 groups to cover a Congressional district.

Citizens Assemblies




[1] Matt Leighninger and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance -- and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same by (Vanderbilt University Press 2006) xiv



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